A Startup Dictionary for Beginners

Before I even knew what a “startup” was, I wound up working for one.

Admittedly, I had been an intern for over a month before I realized that the company I was working for was in fact a startup that was still in it’s “bootstrapping” days. Naïve, I know. However, having attended a fine arts writing program for the previous 4 years and fully immersing myself into the chaotic realm of creative writing, “startup” and “business” were not the primary and relevant subject matter…or topics that we delved into at all.

I sort of “fell into” this job—my first after graduating from university. Out of sheer passion for the company’s mission, I unknowingly applied for an internship at a company that was just barely out of the womb. One month later, my internship turned into a full-time paid position, and before I fully understood what I had gotten myself into, words and phrases such as “burn rate,” “pivot” and “scale” were rolling off my tongue as if I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t.

startup dictionary

From Yashi.com


I spent just under two years with that company, transitioning from social media intern to content strategist, and ultimately claimed the role of “Chief Storyteller”. But anyone whose ever worked at a startup will tell you that it doesn’t really matter what your title is, because when you’re working for a company that is that young, you wear many different hats, take on many different tasks (whether they’re in your area of expertise or not) and you develop a knack for running at fires, instead of away from them.

While juggling the day-to-days of building a brand, creating a voice for our little startup that could, and activating a community of supporters, I began to assemble a lexicon that contrasted my writerly diction. Through immersion and osmosis, I was writing a new dictionary in the language of startups.


This is, The Startup Dictionary for Beginners.


While in the startup world, this angel doesn’t exactly belong to a class of spiritual beings, it is still common practice to pray to them, praise them, and/or seek their guidance. An angel is typically a high-net-worth individual who invests in early-age companies. Essentially, they back your company financially, in exchange for equity or convertible debt.


Sounds like code to an untrained ear, or what you might have said before signing off of your AIM account in the 90s. Long form, it translates to Business-To-Business. If you’re a B2B company, it means that you’re selling your products and/or services to other businesses, instead of directly to consumers.


When a startup is “bootstrapping”, it means that they are self-sustaining without the aid of, say, an “angel”. To bootstrap is to be financially lean, keeping costs and expenses as low as possible while growing the business.

Burn rate

This is the rate at which a startup uses its cash to survive. It’s calculated by a simple formula: The money spent each week (or month) minus the incoming cash flow. Hint—when you’re working for a startup with a high burn rate (say $25,000 per week), it’s probably time to start praying to your angels (or looking for some side work).

Company Retreat

Don’t be fooled by the relaxing sound of the word “retreat”. For small startups, a company retreat has the potential to be anything but relaxing, and an excuse for your employer to overwork you on the weekends (albeit, at least you’re getting out of the city for a couple of days).

startup dictionary

From sanluisrey.org


“Crushing it”

This is a phrase that needs to be retired from the startup world for the sheer fact that it’s completely over-used. While I’m obliged to define it (it means to be doing a good job), my tip for you is this: never use this phrase. Let people know you’re “crushing it” by your metrics, your growing brand, the potency of your product or service, and your excited consumers, instead.


Unfortunately, no, this is not in reference to the sprawling wrap-around sundeck of your dreams. In the realm of startups, a deck is typically a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation crafted for the purpose of pitching your growing company to potential investors.

Exit Strategy

Don’t be fooled—Entrepreneurs and investors alike always have an exit strategy (whether they say they do, or not). It’s as it sounds, a strategy on how an entrepreneur or investor can exit their investment in the company with the best possible return. If you’re entering the startup world as an employee, don’t be afraid to negotiate for equity. You deserve credit for what you helped build.

startup dictionary

From investmentpropertycolorado.com


“Disruptive Technology”

In today’s startup world, if you’re building anything, it better be disruptive—that is, to destroy the norms of the status quo when it comes to your product or service, to be different, to offer something that’s never been offered before. However, I’d be willing to make a wager on how long the word “disruptive” lasts before companies are claiming to be some other buzzword. You fill in the ____________.


I’m not sure if we’re a product of our 21st century society, or if it’s a product of us…but what I can tell you, is that everyone wants to turn everything into a game. To gamify your product or service, means to use game mechanics in your business applications. Make it fun for the masses!

High Level

This is a jargon phrase used as a blanket term for any ambiguous end goal.

Example: “High level—we want everyone in the world to stop drinking water and start drinking our mystery liquid instead…”

The problem, you may have attained, is in how to achieve your “high level” goal. Something to note: I’ve never heard the words “low-level” tossed around the office before.


When you work for a startup, you are constantly learning new things—either organically, or because you’ve been tasked with a job you’ve never done before and you’re on a tight deadline to figure out how to do it. Either way, the term “learnings” was colloquially coined in the startup world as a category for sharing with your fellow employees so that they too, can learn.

“Low Hanging Fruit”

This phrase always bothered me. Maybe I have a dirty mind, but I just couldn’t ignore the visual it gave me every time our COO would define our “low hanging fruit”. However, “low hanging fruit” is simply in reference to the quickest and easiest way for the company to make money.


No, this is not an award for your outstanding performance—In fact, it’s actually much more underwhelming than that. MVP stands for “minimum viable product”. That is, the version 1.0; the very least or minimum that any product can be in order to launch it.

startup dictionary

From pbs.twimg.com



If like me, you used to play basketball, you’ll already know that this means to change directions. Its application in the startup world is very similar. To pivot means to reassess the current direction of your company and change directions, often catalyzed by a loss of momentum or inability to scale.


While I ignorantly thought our developers were talking about our brand’s “sass” (which I was happy to take full credit for), I soon learned the true spelling of SaaS and therefore it’s true meaning. SaaS stands for “Software as a Service”.

Scale, Scaling

Scale is a fancy jargon word that means to grow your business and improve capital efficiency. To actually scale, is much more difficult than just saying the word.

True story, I went to a startup Christmas party once, and every time I heard the word “scale”, I took a shot. Needless to say, I was very drunk by the end of the night.

startup dictionary

From e27.co



As in, “we’re the most disruptive company in this space!” (Which may or may not be true). Space is in reference to the particular niche your company inhabits, and is proprietary to the number of other competitors that occupy that same space.


This is a word that means exactly what it means…and then SO MUCH MORE in the startup world. When you’re building a new business from the ground up, it is absolutely fundamentally necessary that you be transparent in your motives and goals. Consumers want to know they can trust you, and they don’t want to be taken advantage of. Build trust with transparency.

startup dictionary

From mshcdn.com



This refers to the amount of money your company is worth. If you watch Shark Tank, you already know you’re valuating you’re company way too high and Mr. Wonderful will be all to happy to humble you. Want to know your company’s valuation? You are what the market says you are.


Reanne DerksonI am a writer from Regina, SK, with the heart of a traveler and an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating from the University of Victoria’s Fine Arts Writing Program, I spent two wild years working for a startup in Vancouver, BC, where I learned the in’s and out’s of startup life and added some business jargon to my ever-growing lexicon. Today, I am a freelancer, writing my way into the world, seeking out anything and everything that lights my fire and inspires me. I have been previously published by Live Young and Free Magazine, Penduline Press Literary Journal, Gravel: a literary magazine, Elite Daily, The Martlet, This Side of West: an anthology of deep and meaningfuls, and more.

To read more of my work, please visit www.reannederkson.com

Twitter: @loveleighree

Read more about and from the author: Reanne’s WiLab Profile